Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Theory of Relativity

We now know that a day is a long time in politics. Conal McDevitt has already forced a recalibration of one of the most famous maxims in politics.

Many radio listeners would have been eating their breakfast as the South Belfast MLA toughed it out, yesterday morning, swatting away awkward questions about payments to his spouse/advisor (SPAD?); by the time they were having their tea he had gone.

The normally articulate, almost robotic Dubliner cut a very human figure – tearful and contrite – as he explained his decision to resign his post. He had always demanded the highest standards of propriety from others; he himself had fallen short of these – over an undeclared payment of £6,750; he had to pay a price for that. His inability to recall, never mind explain, the reasons for his lapse of judgement, added to McDevitt’s sudden vulnerability.

The public reaction was interesting, especially in the social media environment which McDevitt inhabited so skilfully. Most acknowledged his undoubted ability; many his integrity. As Pope observed: “To err is human; to forgive is divine.”

His resignation has been hailed almost universally as a loss to politics in Northern Ireland. It is certainly a grievous wound to the SDLP. While some in the faction-riven party will quietly delight at having seen this brilliant star crash and burn, the smarter ones will recognise it as a severe blow. No party can afford to lose people of such high calibre. In the short term they have to find a replacement for the Haass talks. Beyond that they have to unearth another candidate for eventual leadership.

In the end McDevitt’s departure was sudden and swift. It showed a decisiveness which we are unused to seeing in Northern Ireland politics. It also confounded our expectations of the class. We have all witnessed politicians who have been guilty of far greater misdemeanours than McDevitt batoning down the hatches, brazening it out, clinging desperately to office.

It would be reassuring to think that in leaving the stage over this issue of principle, McDevitt had set down a standard for behaviour in public office. Don’t hold your breath. Recalibrating political maxims is one thing; re-writing the laws of physics is another. In Northern Ireland, politics is relative - literally.         

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